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Scottish Yeomanry in South Africa 1900 - 1901
Chapter III


I THINK we all remember well our first night at Maitland Camp. Arriving on the ground we took up our position in column of troops, more or less, and a great deal of time was spent in trying to get us to cover, and keep the right distances apart for picketing. We got orders to back and go forward, to close in and open out, to go to the right, and to go to the left, till we were in an absolute muddle and dead tired. When at last we were allowed to picket down we found that the pegs would not hold at the particular spot, so all had to be shifted and gone over again. Some could not get room on the rope to tie up their chargers, and stood around looking as disconsolate as if they expected to have to hold them all night. There was a great running about after mallets and heel-ropes, and some of the horses seemed to have quite forgotten that they were now in the army, where they would have to sacrifice comfort for show, and would not agree to be tied fore and aft, or, if they seemed to submit, would pull up the heel peg as soon as one's back was turned. In the end we got our horses tied up anyhow, and set to work on the tents. It was now dark, and we were getting hungry. Those in charge were too flustered to see about tea, so we went off to the canteens and the Soldiers' Home, and fared well on bread and tea, with sardines and potted meats.

Ten are about as many as should ever be in one of the regulation bell-tents, which Miss Hobhouse describes as "tiny" in her report on concentration camps, but that night we succeeded in packing in fifteen or sixteen; it would have been a fit case for her pity and sympathy had we only been Boers. We did not take long to fall asleep however, when once we got settled down. If we wakened occasionally it was owing to the unaccustomed hardness of our beds, and our ears were then always assailed by the rap, rap, rapping of the stable-guards' mallets, trying with but little success to drive in the pegs as fast as the horses pulled them out. Often an extra amount of shouting and bustle would suggest that a whole row of horses fastened to the one long rope had stampeded and was going to clear a line of tents; but we were too sleepy to be seriously alarmed, and would doze off again to waken to more of the rap, tap, tapping.

The next day we were left to settle down pretty much by ourselves, having only to water, feed, and groom the horses, and straighten the horse lines and rows of tents. We were delighted to be able to buy sweets, biscuits, and grapes at the booths around the camp, and inspect the variety of articles which the pedlar Jews insisted we should buy to complete our outfit for up country.

The succeeding ten days were spent in drilling—both forenoon and afternoon; beginning with saddling and off-saddling the horses, then drilling in light order, and finally drills and sham fights in full marching order.

At this time it took us two hours or more to turn out. First, in saddling we had a blanket to fold in a peculiar and invariable manner, to put between the numnah and the saddle. In girthing up we generally forgot to pass the girth through the loop of the breastplate, and when this was rectified we would find that we had not remembered to slip it through the loop on the rifle-bucket. By this time the horse would be so annoyed with all our manoeuvring that it would try either to bite the seat of our breeches or kick us. Our wallets were then to fill and strap on to the saddle in front; the cloaks to roll in a mysterious manner and strap over the wallets, and our boots to stow on the top of all. The rear pack consisted of spare tunic, breeches, and putties, rolled in a, blanket and waterproof sheet, surmounted by corn-sack, hay-nets, picketing pegs, a mallet, and built-up rope. Our mess-tins, heel-ropes, and feed-bags were strung on the straps holding on the pack, so it was quite a feat to balance everything and buckle them. Frequently the horse would move at the critical moment, and down would come the whole concern like a card house. Besides all this stuff we had a hoof-picker, shoe-case, and rifle-bucket to keep mind of. It took no little time for each one to hunt out his personal equipment from among dozens all alike, and it was so difficult to remember whether the haversack went on the right side or the left, whether under the water-bottle strap, or over the field-glass strap, or below the belt, or above the frog, or where. When we did turn out in all our glory, and had begun to trot, instead of feeling martial and proud, we had sensations akin to those of a Kaffir witch doctor hung round with skulls and rattles, dancing a breakdown! The regimental sergeant-major was always drumming it into us that at the front we would not get more than ten minutes to turn out for a fight, so some of us in despair half determined that, rather than be late, we would just go off bareback with rifles and bandoliers, taking the risk of imprisonment for life for losing all our then much valued kit. After all we took but little of it with us on the trek.

Most of us obtained leave for at Least one afternoon and evening in Cape Town, but spent a lot of the time having dinner, so saw few of the sights.

By the courtesy of the management we were allowed to become members of a club and swimming bath, and at a contest held in honour of the yeomanry our men were very successful.

The first intimation of our departure from Maitland came in the form of an order for our battalion to find a guard for a bridge on the railway at D'Urban Road, about four hours' easy ride from Cape Town. A rumour got about that it was to be attacked by some rebels who had escaped from prison at Simons Town. A patrol of twenty was despatched, armed to the teeth with ten rounds of ammunition per man, and we said good-bye to our comrades, as if we never expected to see them in life again. Early next morning a second patrol was despatched to relieve the first, and the main body followed on about noon. I remember how we fancied that we were doing something quite important and highly dangerous, marching about doing sentry on the bridge with our rifles loaded and bayonets fixed.

On the following day-31st March—we all left D' Urban Road together, and arrived at Stellenbosch at dusk, having been on the road about five and a half hours. In spite of our ever-present fear lest the army gods would scoff at our inefficiency and keep us at the base indefinitely, we were a jolly crew that day as we rode along the dusty sun-baked roads. The weather was fine, though hot, and the country was pretty and interesting. One man afforded us great amusement at a stream where we watered our beasts, by tumbling gently forward when his horse put down its head to drink, and after vainly struggling to hold on to its mane, dropping into the water. The people of Stellenbosch turned out to see us ride through their pretty old town, and a few of the loyalists supplied us with apples and drinks. It was getting quite dark when we arrived at our camping ground, and we might have had just such another night of it as our first at Maitland, had not the "Duke of Cambridge's Own" Yeomanry come along in force from their camp, and fixed up ropes, driven pegs, held candles, and generally helped us to get settled down for the night, ending by bearing us off to the canteens to stand us tea and buns. As usual, since we had trekked a few miles, everything was upset, and we got no regimental dinner or tea. We were now beginning to wonder whether, when we had to trek every day for a week, we would get nothing to eat the whole time. Or would we be expected to depend on canteens, if there were any, and our shilling and fivepence per day?

Those who had not horses joined us next day, having come up by train after many adventures.

Stellenbosch gets the name of being a very disloyal town. It is one of the oldest in Cape Colony. Prettily situated below the western side of a mountain range, it is quaintly built and well wooded. We had a number of watery looking misty mornings, and witnessed many magnificent sunrises as we rode down to the remount camp to water our horses.

We had a long distance to take them to water, fully a mile and a half, and used to ride bareback leading two or three others. It was splendid exercise, coming three times a day, and was much needed to harden us up. Some of the horses would not lead well, and dragged behind, nearly pulling us off backwards; others led only too well, and pulled ahead as if they were still hitched to a tramway-car. Generally on our return journey we would encounter a few stragglers, detained from either cause. One with his temper gone, driving an obstinate brute round and round in a cloud of sulphurous smoke, but getting no nearer his destination; some other, having probably let go his pair of pullers, would be chasing around after them, as they trotted about with their heads up enjoying their liberty.

At first we used to drill in the forenoons, but the weather was so hot and oppressive that, to our great satisfaction, the hour was changed to 6.30 am. Reveille was at 5.30, and as we had to parade at once for roll-call we could never get even an extra five minutes between the blankets. The day's routine commenced with a two and a half hours' drill on horseback, or some target practice, for we had not enough mounts to go round, so could not get all out together. The horses having been watered at the end of the drill were then fed, and we got our breakfast of coffee and bread. In the forenoon we were occupied with stable work, cleaning our saddlery, or looking to our rifles in case of an inspection. The horses were watered again and fed at noon, after which we got our dinner of boiled beef or mutton and the water it was boiled in, bread, and sometimes potatoes. In the afternoon, unless there was a parade, we were free to go and have a swim—there being a splendid pond within ten minutes' walk of the camp. At 4.30 p.m. the horses were again watered and fed, and we got our tea and dry bread. In the light of our subsequent treatment on the veldt, when we got jam and vegetables as regularly as possible, and quite often cheese and bacon, we could never understand why we were so poorly fed during our six weeks at the base, nor why the old soldiers with us—sergeant-majors and the like—allowed us to be done out of our rations in such a scandalous manner. We, of course, did not know what we were entitled to. The orderly officers used to come round daily with the regulation question, "Any complaints?" It made no difference whether we complained or not, though we generally did; but when we spoke to the officer in charge of the battalion, all the consolation he gave us was that we would be very much worse off before long, and had better get used to it. We never were worse fed on the veldt, unless for a day or two at a time, but even if we had been, we rather thought we could have stood it better had we been well fed before and kept in good condition. As it was, in the getting-used-to-it process, quite a large number took ill, and some had to be left behind when we entrained for the north.

That we were able to repair to the swimming pond almost every afternoon was the most enjoyable feature of our stay at Stellenbosch. Our first visit to it was an amusing one. Someone got to hear of the pond, and the news spreading we all drifted off there in the afternoon. But we had the piper to pay when we came back for not finding out whether we would be allowed to bathe or not. Perhaps it was the intention of the authorities to get us used to being dirty, in case we might not always get washing while on the trek. We believe they debated the wisdom of allowing us to go so far from camp without our rifles. They certainly adopted the precautionary measure of detailing a lieutenant to accompany us. We hardly realised the full humorousness of all this till we had been in places of danger. However, all went on swimmingly after this; and later on, an aquatic carnival was held under the patronage of the officers, and was a great success. The 18th Company were strong in swimmers, and carried off all the events but two.

At Maitland and Stellenbosch, and later at Wellington and Worcester, we had a fair opportunity of sampling the galling and paralysing effects of unnecessary sentry-go. For the sake of the sanity of future Tommies, we are pleased to read that the new War Office management intends to do away with it as far as possible.

At Stellenbosch we began to take a livelier interest in the drilling. Before this our attention was almost entirely taken up with the management of our horses, keeping in line, and straining to grasp the meaning of even the simplest orders. But now we could try to understand the general plan of the evolutions, and took a great interest in the sham fights. We were well drilled in dismounting under cover from a supposed enemy, leaving the horses in charge of the number three's, and running up to the top of a hill to fire blank cartridges over it. We always found the drilling under Captain Coats the fastest and most furious, and many a hue and cry we had after him over a roughish country covered thickly with scrub, and full of holes. Of course some of us came down occasionally, but no one was ever hurt.

One day there was a sham fight between the i 7th and 20th Companies with the machine gun of the D.C.O. Yeomanry against the 19th Company with their Colt gun. We, as far as I could understand, were onlookers merely, and roamed

about noting the positions and dispositions of the opposing forces. Towards the finish the adjutant, Captain Vereker, who was with us, must have determined to be in at the death, for in spite of our supposed neutral character he galloped us down on a farm held by a strong picket, with the intention of wiping them out. We got the order to mount and gallop, and I noticed one man obey so literally that he did not take time to get his feet in the stirrups, nor gather up the reins, but set off with his rifle in one hand, and his field-glasses in the other. I expected to see at least one empty saddle as a result of the charge, but he stuck on. When the fight was over we all met at a farm, and had a jolly picnic under the shade of some splendid trees.

The horses supplied to us from the remount camp were very poor indeed. One we left behind when we started for Wellington, and another fell out in the first ten miles.

We occupied two days on the road from Stellenbosch to Wellington, camping a night at Paarl—another pretty, old town. Wellington is a most loyal place, and the good inhabitants did all in their power to make our stay a pleasant one. They opened a hail where we could read and write, and supplied us with good tea and buns. They also got up entertainments for us, and invited us to their houses. It was quite a jolly time. We spent one Sunday there, and had a very imposing church parade, notable as the only one in South Africa attended by the whole battalion.

On Thursday, 3rd May, we left for Worcester, via Baine's Kloof, camping a night at Breede River. The scenery through the Kloof is very fine. In many places it must have been quite an engineering feat to cut the road. Worcester is the prettiest town we saw in South Africa. The streets have all a double row of fine trees on either side, and there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of clear fresh water, for down both sides of every street there flows a quick running stream.

Both at Worcester and Wellington the drilling was continued, and when it came to our turn to train up northwards, both men and horses were keen and fit.


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